The Wall that fell and saved the world

The former Check Point Charlie, Berlin in 1989 (Senate of Berlin)

The former Check Point Charlie, Berlin in 1989 (Senate of Berlin)

It feels like a different era, doesn’t it? The graffiti spray-painted on the ugly concrete, the cheering crowds, the young people lithely scaling the hated stonework as they tore it down.

It was 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell, but it might as well have been 200. The imagery seems to belong to a different time, like staring at a painting of the mob storming the Bastille or George Washington crossing the Delaware. Yet we should all take a moment to remember just what the Fall of the Wall meant.

Not just the beginning of the end of Communism, an ideology that promised paradise and delivered a gray, monotonous purgatory. Nor the end of the Soviet empire and what that meant for people who had only known tyranny. No, what should make us rejoice is the  end of a thermonuclear nightmare.

We have become so focused on jihad and fatwa, terrorism and fanatical gunmen, that we have convinced that our way of life is under threat. Hard to believe there was a time when statesmen and scientists talked casually about 15 million Americans dying in a Soviet nuclear strike.

The words seem archaic now; “nuclear winter”, “first strike”, “launch on warning.” Clinical language that obscured the end of life as we knew it. The United States and the Soviet Union – plus some assorted nuclear small fry like Britain and France – with enough firepower to devastate the Earth in less than 30 minutes. And all of them watchful, mistrustful, just a coded message away from Armageddon. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

9/11 was an atrocity. Global warming is a problem. But despite all the rhetoric, neither is an existential threat, or at least one that would end human civilization in less than it takes to watch a sitcom. The nuclear missiles, the submarines and the bombers, are still there. Russia, China and America still eye each other warily, and there are bound to be conflicts in the coming years. Still, most of us no longer wonder from time to time if we might be vaporized because some mistook a flock of birds for a flight of missiles.

That’s something to be grateful for.

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2 Responses to The Wall that fell and saved the world

  1. Chris Thomas says:

    True enough I suppose though, as a Cold War history nut, I’m somewhat fond of pointing out that human kind has really only developed one weapon that’s never seen use in combat: the Hydrogen Bomb.

    Maybe that’s for a reason.

    Despite all the close calls, despite all the worry, fretting, terror, and threat of destruction we somehow managed to avoid blowing ourselves up.

    Now the sample size isn’t very large but you’ve got to wonder if that’s because we got lucky or if it’s because there was something to that Mutually Assured Destruction talk after all.

    Truth be told my nightmares aren’t made of Plutonium or Uranium but dwell in a freezer in Atlanta. Since we eradicated smallpox in 1979 most humans have lost what traces of immunity they once had yet the virus lives on in freezers and in the bio-weapons program of the former Soviet Union and a host of other substantially less stable nations.

    A nuclear terrorist attack on a major city would be terrible but it wouldn’t be – as you point out – the same thing as a nuclear exchange between superpowers.

    But the difference between a general nuclear war and a glass vial crushed underfoot in the Times Square subway stop is almost negligible. In that sense, the fall of the Soviet Union just replaced one threat with another one.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Good points, Chris. But I don’t think biowarfare or some killer swine flu epidemic is half as terrifying as nuclear war. Epidemics take months and years to spread. A Soviet missile sub off the coast of New England could lob a nuclear-tipped missile in under 15 minutes. There would be no time for thought, hesitation, double-checking that it was a malfunctioning radar or a rouge Russisn skipper. We’re all minding our business and BOOM! On the other hand, unlike an epidemic, we wouldn’t have much time to worry about impending doom. That was some comfort.

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